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On the Chopping Block

May 14, 2009

With some university presses facing budget cuts that could effectively kill their operations, maybe it shouldn't be a surprise. But experts on literary magazines are nonetheless surprised -- and worried -- by the announcement this week out of Middlebury College that it will cease sponsorship of The New England Review by 2011 if the publication doesn't become self-supporting.

The problem, according to the editor of the Review and experts on literary magazines, is that they don't have business models that work, and so must rely on philanthropic support (which is hard to get going now) or the sponsorship of a college (as is the case for many of the top literary magazines). In recent years, no college forced a literary magazine to fend for itself -- a move that would effectively kill most such publications. In 2003, Washington and Lee University floated the idea of ending or sharply cutting support for Shenandoah; the university pulled back from its plan amid strong criticism from the literary world.

That the latest plan to end support for a magazine would involve a college that is wealthier than many others that support literary magazines, and involves a publication that is considered to be among the best of its kind, has those who care about the magazines worried.

"They have achieved grand dame status. They have published so many people who have gone on to have household status. This would be a terrible shame," said Jeffrey Lependorf, executive director of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses.

By many non-financial measures, the Review is a success. When The Boston Globe ran an article last year on literary magazines, it said that "this is one of the journals most often mentioned by writers and readers -- including editors of other journals, as among the nation's best. As Elizabeth Searle says, the Review is a 'high-class lit magazine that also happens to be secretly sexy.' What's not to love about that?" Like similar magazines, it publishes poetry, fiction and literary nonfiction. In February, the magazine held a reading to celebrate its 30th anniversary and the contemporary writers who participated were among those who cite the Review as launching and influencing careers -- people like Shannon Cain, Brock Clarke, Jennifer Grotz, Keith Lee Morris, Carl Phillips and Natasha Trethewey -- writers who are not household names but are well respected in literary circles.

While the Review balances its (subsidized) budget, it is extremely dependent on the college. Middlebury pays for most production costs, provides office space, and pays the salaries of the professors and others who work there. Stephen Donadio, the editor and an English professor, declined to say how much money the magazine receives from the college, but said that it paid for most of the expenses and that he didn't see how other revenue streams (subscriptions, for example) could ever support the magazine sufficiently to operate without college financial support.

"We're an incubator for literature," said Donadio. And he added that the Review, along with the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, which is affiliated with the college, have given Middlebury enhanced stature in the literary world. And he noted that the Review has the college's students as interns, and that editors teach at the college. What the magazine doesn't have is a huge subscriber base. Donadio said that the figure is under 2,000. That's not low for literary magazines, but it also doesn't lend itself to a self-sustaining business model.

R.T. Smith, editor of Shenandoah, said that it was unfair to apply a purely financial standard to evaluating literary magazines. In much the same way that university presses support scholarship (and are subsidized by research universities), literary magazines support literature and publish the work of professors all the time.

"A really important equation to consider here is that universities expect their faculty to publish in magazines like The New England Review and Shenandoah. For a college to say that we are shutting ours down, while hoping our faculty keep publishing in everyone else's is a bit of waffling on one's sense of community," Smith said. "If you are teaching writing, you need literary magazines."

Middlebury is by no means singling out the Review. The college has been through several rounds of budget cuts, largely prompted by drops in endowment earnings and the endowment value, and the uncertainty over the economy. In the latest round, the college was accepting recommendations of a panel on which students and faculty had representatives. In fact, the college amended the recommendations to give the Review until 2011 to become self-supporting. And the latest round includes a series of other cuts, in many aspects of the college: with spending reductions affecting the president's house, the buildings and grounds, arts programs and meal plans, among other items.

A Middlebury spokeswoman said that there was no intent to go after the magazine, just a campuswide process to identify all kinds of ways to allocate funds where they are most needed. She also said that the college was willing to help the magazine become self-supporting.

In other cases, institutions making cutbacks have spared literary magazines. For example, when Antioch University shut down Antioch College, the university's board went out of its way to say that the cuts would not affect The Antioch Review, which continues to publish.

 

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